The Small House

In the recent rage to build larger and larger houses, it is easy to forget that for most of the 20th century, the average size of a house hovered around 1000 square feet. I have a hard time imagining that. At my current home we struggle to manage on 2,100 square feet for two people, but I think I can put most of that down to my extensive array of kitchen gadgets. But I digress…

Although much of what we recognize as historic today from the 19th century are large houses, most of what was built was small. People first built log cabins or small houses. Around here the small house might first have been two rooms with a large central hall and a front porch. Even the pattern books of the time provided plans for “laborer’s cottages.” Andrew Jackson Downing spent fifty pages in his 1850 book The Architecture of Country Houses discussing appropriate cottages for the “working-man.” The early cottages in Montgomery have been supplanted by newer buildings, but the smaller houses at Old Alabama Town like the Lucas Tavern and the Yancey House give us an idea of the style of the earliest houses in the area.

The shotgun house, our peculiar southern, indigenous urban cottage came next. It was popular from after the Civil War until about 1920. These narrow, long houses were called shotguns, so the story goes, because you could fire a shotgun through the front door and the blast would go out the back door without striking a thing. My limited experience with guns tells me this could be better accomplished with a rifle, so you can take the story of the name with a grain of salt. Their true origins are murky, but probably represented a cheap, land-conserving way to house a large number of people in a small space while still recognizing our Southern preference for having our own home.

A more traditional shotgun with a steeply pitched gable roof, this example draws design strength from strong geometry.

A testament to the durability of this house type, this example may have been built as late as 1920, and shows bungalow influences.

Shotguns are rather rarer in Montgomery than in Mobile or Birmingham. I suspect that many shotguns were demolished here in slum clearance in the mid-20th century. Still, good examples can be found around town, one of my favorites was rehabilitated last summer on Hall Street. This example must be a late one, as the roof is lowered to a bungalow-type pitch, has a hipped roof rather than gabled and it is a little wider, but still follows the plan of rooms lined up in single file. I don’t know what was required on the interior, but the fresh paint and clean windows took the outside from drab to a stand-out on this street.

Shotguns suffer an image problem today, as they can be seen as a symbol of poverty – a condition people understandably want to leave behind. I heard a neighborhood president in another city say she would not rest until every shotgun in her neighborhood was torn down, so great was that stigma to her. Other places, though, notably New Orleans and Mobile, have recognized the shotgun’s considerable charm and have seen many shotguns fixed-up as charming starter homes.

Small houses continued to be popular, and whole house plan books were devoted to them in the 1920s and 1930s. They appeared in every style of the day: bungalows, colonial cottages, and the eclectic revivals like Spanish and Tudor. Whole streets of these small houses show up in Cloverdale and Capitol Heights, nowhere more successfully than Graham Street in Cloverdale, a street I have featured before. With the similar sizes and uniform setback, the tree-shaded lots of this street continue to charm Montgomery folk. Where is the sidewalk? It seems a missing element on a street as neighborly as this.

Perfect representations of the architectural ideals of the 1920s, these houses offer considerable charm and neighborliness.

A few blocks away, near the corner of Girard and Felder, is a little mystery house. Looking like it made a quick escape from southern California, a diminutive stucco house in the first bock of Girard south of Felder stands out. Located on a small lot behind a ranch style house on a big lot, was it a garage and dependency for a larger, now-missing, Mediterranean style house which might have stood on this southwest corner of Felder and Girard ? The Mediterranean style house on the northeast corner, just across Felder , once had a similar dependency which was lost to termites and water damage in the 1980s. I’ve asked several long-time Montgomerians, but no one remembers anything about what might have stood on this corner before the ranch house (which is itself, small).

I loved the perfectly scaled tile roof and columns here. They give this inset porch a real presence.

Post WWII construction brought a new kind of small house to Montgomery–the expedient one. For nearly twenty years, residential construction had been at a standstill in the entire country. In the 1930’s Great Depression, no one could afford to buy, and during WWII labor and materials were destined for the war effort. Then, peace. Soldiers came home, expecting to marry and start a family, and there was nowhere to live. On prosperous streets with large houses like Gilmer and Felder, patriotic spirit led people to add apartments in their homes or have their former dependencies turned into rental property. New subdivisions were built, many in a style (or non-style) called a minimal-traditional cottage. Not new-styled enough to be a ranch house, they also lacked details which might define them better. But with these homes you begin to see the horizontal proportion taking precedence over the vertical. There is a ground hugging form, helped along by the new technique of building on a slab. Windows changed too, with picture windows being popular, and sashes having horizontal panes of glass. In fact, these houses looked a lot like the all-too-familiar temporary military housing the soldiers had just left behind. You find houses like this all over the country. In Montgomery, the streets behind Baptist South have excellent examples. In these examples the developer seems to have compensated for the small house by providing a huge lot. Your house may have been small, but you could take pleasure in preening an ample lawn.

The door, with three square windows stacked up, was a popular new door of the ‘50s. The red makes this one really pop.

Ranch style houses also filled the post WWII housing shortage, but we’ll cover that another day. Smaller houses are also being popularized in the New Urbanist communities like The Waters and Hampstead, where traditional detail and quality feature are emphasized over square footage. For your reading pleasure, try Creating the Not So Small House by Sarah Susanka, who approaches the subject with a new urbanist eye. There are the usual kind of reprint selections from Dover, one good one is Small Houses of the Fourties by Harold Group. If you want to be overwhelmed with selection, how could you resist 500 Small Houses of the Twenties By Henry Smith? All these can be ordered by Capitol Book and News. Indeed, some of Sarah Susanka’s books may be in stock.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.

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  1. Sandra Nickel says:

    I continue to be fascinated by the idea of living in a smaller house AND that some people consider 2000-plus square feet to be small!
    In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I occupied one of those houses Elizabeth Brown talks about just north of Baptist South. At one time I had as roommates a woman and her two small children. We managed nicely.
    Then in 1979 when my husband and I moved back to town, we attempted to do it again. And found that we could not even unpack the boxes we’d brought! Those houses were between 700-800 square feet. Somehow we’d acquired an awful lot of stuff in a very few years.

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